Consumer Reports Fuels Misinformation about Mercury in Seafood
We thought Groundhog Day came and went, but this week Consumer Reports – the group most known for reviewing electronics and appliances – is fueling misinformation about the healthfulness and safety of seafood, like it’s done in the past.
Seafood is a Superfood
On KOTA Territory News ABC, the anchor recommends seafood for those seeking to eat more healthfully in 2020. The segment could have – and should have – ended there. Reams of published peer-reviewed science conclude that the nutrients in fish and shellfish are essential for many functions in the body – including heart health and brain health. But, of course, that doesn’t make for all that interesting of news story. Enter Consumer Reports.
The segment features Amy Keating, a nutritionist from Consumer Reports, who starts by naming some of the known health benefits of seafood consumption, but veers quickly into mercury fear-mongering. She says eating more fish could increase your risk of mercury intake. What she leaves out of this ominous statement is… context.
The Mercury Reality Check
Trace amounts of mercury have been present in seafood since the beginning of time, yet there are no cases of mercury toxicity attributed to the normal consumption of commercial seafood found in any published peer-reviewed medical journal. By way of example, the average American eats 16 pounds of seafood annually. The average consumer in Japan eats 116 pounds. Even at nearly ten times the amount of seafood consumed, there is no epidemic of mercury toxicity in Japan.
As nutrition science shows, the benefits of seafood (including nutrients like protein, B vitamins, vitamin D, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids) outweigh the theoretical risks of mercury. Ms. Keating goes on to scare consumers aware from a handful of species, which contradicts the latest science and government recommendations. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are no species off-limits to the general population. There are a handful of species that a very particular subset of the population should avoid – pregnant and breastfeeding women – but all other seafood types can, and should, be enjoyed as part the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines that say to eat a variety of seafood at least twice per week, including during pregnancy. Unfortunately, most Americans fall short of this recommendation, due in part to confusing messages about seafood like those purported in this segment by Consumer Reports.
Low consumption of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish is the second-biggest dietary contributor to preventable deaths in the United States, taking a total of 84,000 lives each year. In fact, eating seafood just twice a week can reduce the risk of fatal heart attack by 36 percent.
Let’s leave nutrition recommendations to public health professionals and government nutrition experts… and let Consumer Reports do what it does best, evidenced by the current (Feb 7, 2020) snippet from the homepage of their website:
Debunking Prevention’s Fake Food Facts
Off to a questionable start
When a list of “foods you should never eat” begins with whole wheat bread, you know you are in for a hyperbolic ride. Prevention’s article, 50 Foods You Should Never Eat, According to Health Experts, which was carelessly syndicated by MSN, also suggests avoiding foods like canned tomatoes, non-organic strawberries, apples, green beans, and a handful of seafood products.
In the slides that discourage readers from seafood, half of the “health experts” appear to have no background whatsoever in health. The source who says you shouldn’t eat the most popular seafood in America – shrimp – is the CEO of the ocean conservation group Oceana, Andy Sharpless. His background is in law, economics, and advocacy; not public health or nutrition. Not to mention his day job is to lobby against the seafood industry. The source cautioning readers about tuna is Philippe Cousteau, an “explorer” and cofounder of EarthEcho – also holding no background in nutrition or health sciences.
Some of the claims do appear to come from sources with health credentials, but – at least in the case of seafood – their advice flies in the face of the latest science and public health recommendations. For example, Doctor Margaret I. Cuomo says you should not eat farmed salmon because of toxins and PCBs. The reality is that Harvard University research finds seafood broadly, not just farmed salmon, makes up only 9% of the PCBs in the average American diet, while products like vegetables make up 20%. Would Dr. Cuomo suggest her patients never eat vegetables? Ironically, in this article teeming with irresponsible advice, the answer might be yes.
Both wild and farmed seafood provide omega-3 fatty acids
Furthermore, a USDA study conducted at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center involving farmed salmon reported that “…consuming farm-raised salmon was an excellent way to increase omega-3 fatty acids in the blood to levels that corresponded to reduced heart disease risk.” The bottom line is farmed seafood, including salmon, is something Americans need to eat more of, not less.
Research shows eating more seafood could save your life
A recent study published in JAMA found 10 specific foods and nutrients affect the risk of dying from cardiometabolic disease (CMD). The study found that eating suboptimal levels of 10 foods or nutrients — too much of some and not enough of others — was associated with more than 45% of deaths due to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Not eating enough “seafood-based omega-3 fats” contributed to 7.8% of the CMD deaths – even higher than not eating enough fruits and vegetables.
Perhaps it’s time to do a study on the effects of Prevention’s sub optimal consumption of facts.
New York Times Gets Food Impact Story Right… Almost
Hats off to the New York Times for its recent article, Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered, which helps consumers quantify the impact of their food choices. Educated shoppers will find their tips helpful, but could also use a healthy dose of perspective to incorporate the realities of food production into decision-making.
Shrimp Farming Does Not Target Mangroves
When addressing food security and the world’s growing population, the Times recognizes the important role of aquaculture. “If we are going to eat more seafood in the coming decades, most of that increase will likely come from fish farms, also known as aquaculture.” The article goes on to say that “sometimes” fish farming can be climate-friendly, but veers into dated statements about shrimp farmers clearing mangrove forests to make room for ponds. The expansion of modern, commercial shrimp farming does not target mangroves. These natural wonders are not under threat from the aquaculture operations that put healthy delicious shrimp on American plates, period.
Fisheries Deserves Higher Recognition
In the article, wild-caught seafood gets a nod “for a relatively small climate footprint.” A relative understatement, when one scientific survey finds in order to replace commercial wild-caught seafood with land for animal grazing, it would take an area equivalent to 22 times the world’s rain forests. Other charts in the article list the average greenhouse gas impact for certain food groups and leave out wild-caught seafood altogether – which would likely be one the lowest levels on the list. Managed responsibly, seafood is a healthy, renewable resource that provides an incredible amount of protein to the world. It deserves a bigger nod.
Real Science-Based Resources
Throughout the article, the Times links to a multitude of reputable outside sources. It’s discouraging, however, to see readers referred to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch as a “science-based” option to help them decide which seafood to purchase. To be clear, Seafood Watch is not a public health organization, it is an NGO with a conservation focus and has recommendations so restrictive, if people actually followed them, much of the seafood Americans eat would be off limits. This is problematic since Americans are already deficient in seafood. The organization has come under fire recently for its confusing and sometimes contradictory guidelines.
A better resource is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Fish Watch website. NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources and their habitat. Under the science-based framework of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and NOAA’s efforts, 45 stocks have been rebuilt and the number of stocks on the overfishing and overfished lists remain near all-time lows.
Seafood is Part of the Solution
Despite all the hand wringing and brow furrowing so often associated with seafood sustainability, consumers presented with facts and relevant perspective find that seafood is part of the solution.
Asparagine Study: USA Today Takes the Lazy Road
A recent study prompted misleading headlines and news stories, an occurrence all too familiar this day and age. The study in question looked at the impact an amino acid, called asparagine, had on mice with aggressive cancer cells. The findings showed that the spread of aggressive cancer cells increased in mice given higher levels of asparagine.
Recap of the Asparagine Study
- The study was done on mice with no immune systems, not on humans.
- The compound asparagine was not found to cause cancer, but to increase the spread of cancer cells the mice already had.
- Seafood was never mentioned in the study.
Reporting on the Study
Unfortunately, lazy journalists who saw this study as an opportunity for a quick, sensational article began reporting that cutting out foods containing asparagine could stop the spread of cancer; a drastic leap from the findings of a study completed on lab mice.
An article in USA Today, by Sean Rossman, contains some of the most egregious reporting, claiming “Future cancer treatments may come with a specific dietary recommendation — eat less asparagus, potatoes and seafood.” The report goes on to list “dairy, beef, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds and whole grains” as other asparagine-rich foods. We would challenge Mr. Rossman to find any find any public health professional who would suggest cutting ties to whole, nutrient-rich foods, such as seafood, as part of a cancer-fighting diet.
To note, the head nurse from Cancer Research UK, an organization that helped fund the study, said in its press release, “At the moment, there is no evidence that restricting certain foods can help fight cancer…” Yet, Mr. Rossman failed to include this, or other needed context, in his report.
- The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) addressed the study and media pick-up in a blog post. AICR digs into the study and notes that many healthful foods contain low levels of asparagine, plus the compound “can be created in the body from other amino acids and it is necessary particularly for the proper functioning of the nervous system.” AICR’s bottom line? “An interesting finding that may possibly lead to treatment options in the future. If you like asparagus, keep eating it as part of a balanced healthy diet.”
A few news outlets also addressed the media frenzy.
- The Mercury News “Should you avoid asparagus? Maybe not” described the new study and its findings and said, “legions made the assumption that you should cut asparagus, as well as potatoes and seafood (which are also high in asparagine) out of your diet to stave off cancer. But now many doctors are warning against this assumption, pointing out that asparagus will not give you cancer.”
- Business Insider also addressed the study in “A new study linking asparagus to cancer is freaking people out — here’s how concerned you should be.” “If curing cancer was really as easy as cutting a few ingredients from your diet, scientists would have probably already unlocked a fix. Understanding how chemical compounds interact with cancer’s spread is a complicated task, and while researchers are gathering new clues, we’re still far away from a simple solution.”
Letter to the Editor
Additionally, NFI responded to the USA Today article right away with a Letter to the Editor, but we did not get a response.
Dear Mr. Bill Sternberg,
I don’t particularly want to restate the title of your recent article about cancer and diet as I’m afraid it will further perpetuate misinformation that is not only confusing, but potentially harmful to public health. The headline and article claimed that numerous healthful foods – many of which are included in dietary patterns shown to reduce cancer risk – may increase the spread of cancer. This very big leap is based on one study…of mice…that were given diets rich in the amino acid asparagine. Sound dietary advice is based on many studies…of humans…who eat the actual foods in question. So, we’re striking out three for three here. The worst part?
Many of the healthful foods mentioned in these American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) articles – plant foods like asparagus and whole grains as well as protein choices beyond red meat like seafood and poultry – are actually recommended as part of a cancer-protective diet, not to mention heart- and weight-healthy diets. I ask that this knee-jerk piece of journalism be revisited before it can do any further harm.
Sr. Director Communications & Advocacy
National Fisheries Institute
Suggesting that readers avoid healthy foods, such as seafood – which is arguably among the healthiest foods on the planet – without providing further context about the study is lazy at best, irresponsible at worst. It’s good to see other organizations and news outlets address reckless reporting about this new study, like the article we saw in USA Today.
NFI’s 30th Annual Chowder Party
Kick-off the 2018 Seafood Expo North America Show with old friends and new. Join us to celebrate NFI’s 30th Annual Chowder Party to be held on Saturday, March 10th from 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm at the beautiful Westin Boston Waterfront, conveniently located adjacent to the Boston Convention Center.
Top Studies Show Seafood Can Be a Lifesaver
Seafood studies from 2017 illustrate the vital role seafood plays in the diet. Eating seafood helps fight heart disease, stroke and diabetes – chronic diseases that are linked to an increased risk of premature death.
Science this year looked at the role of the diet in protecting against these types of chronic diseases. And the top nutrition studies show how seafood is part of a disease-fighting solution.
The top studies:
- Prevent Chronic Disease with Seafood: A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked food habits with 45% of American deaths from heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Not eating enough seafood was linked to about 8 percent of those deaths.
- Improve Quality of Diet with Seafood, Boost Life Expectancy: A Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found people who improve the quality of their diets, including eating more fish, may significantly reduce the risk of premature death. The authors note that fish is among the food groups that contribute the most to improvement.
- Diets in Low in Fish Raise Risk of Early Death: Ongoing research published in The Lancet found that poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths around the world. The study found that diets low in foods, including fish, raise the risk of an early death.
But wait there’s more…
The above studies form only part of the cadre that illustrates seafood is beneficial to living a long healthy life. From alleviating depression, to reducing the risk of asthma, studies in 2017 continue to demonstrate the far-reaching health benefits of seafood.
Here are some runner-ups:
- Eat Seafood to Boost your Mood: A study published in the journal, BMC Medicine, found that following a “healthful diet” which includes lean protein such as seafood provides an effective and accessible treatment strategy for managing depression.
- Eat Seafood to Prevent Asthma: A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that high levels of omega-3s, primarily found in oily fish, are associated with a reduced risk of asthma in children.
- Eat Seafood while Pregnant to Improve your Infants Health: A research paper published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that eating fish during pregnancy is beneficial to an infant’s growth and development and will lessen the chance of the infant developing asthma.
Versatile, delicious, affordable… and so healthy
Seafood is not medicine. It’s a versatile, delicious, affordable and accessible protein that research from the past year also shows, can save lives. There’s no better time than now, for Americans to include more seafood in their diets.
Watch our 1 minute VIDEO round-up these studies.
Is Safe Catch Holding Tight To The Mercury Myth?
In Fast Company, Magazine editor Eillie Anzilotti reports that the Safe Catch tuna testing company “Is On A Mission To Clean Up The Oceans.” Apparently Anzilotti didn’t bother to research the years’ worth of blogs we’ve posted that question whether Safe Catch is also on a mission to promote as much mercury misinformation as consumers can stomach:
- Safe Harbor: Marketing or Misinformation?
- Safe Harbor: Marketing or Misinformation? (Part II)
- More of the Same from Safe Catch
- Marketing the Mercury Myth: This Time on Shark Tank
Safe Catch Tuna Promoting Unfounded Fears
While Safe Catch may be collecting and tracking a mountain’s worth of interesting data they also appear to be unnecessarily scaring consumers away from safe, healthy canned tuna and promoting unfounded fears about mercury in seafood.
Mercury Facts from the FDA
The reality is, the average can of light and albacore tuna have mercury levels of 0.1 and 0.3 parts per million (ppm) mercury, well below the FDA safety level of 1.0 ppm, which includes a ten-fold safety factor—measuring the actual limit is 10.0 ppm. More importantly, both types of canned tuna are rich sources of lean protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids. An exhaustive body of science has examined the interplay between mercury and the beneficial nutrients in fish and repeatedly concluded that “consistent evidence shows that the health benefits from consuming a variety of seafood in the amounts recommended outweigh the health risks associated with methyl mercury” (USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines for Americans.) Safe Catch conveniently fails to highlight this fact in its marketing and it goes unmentioned by Fast Company.
Someone Should Calculate Benefit and Risk… Oh, Wait, They Already Have
The FDA has looked at just what the ratio of benefit to potential harm might be from a litany of species and one of those is tuna. Using pregnant women as the marker, the FDA’s own comprehensive research found pregnant women could eat 164 ounces of canned light tuna every week without concern. That’s more than 40 tuna sandwiches in one week (FDA Quantitative Assessment of the Net Effects on Fetal Neurodevelopment from Eating Commercial Fish). Such published, peer-reviewed science illustrates why Safe Catch is a solution in search of a problem that essentially spreads public health misinformation.
Meanwhile Anzilotti ‘s bio lists her as covering sustainability but she barley even pressure tests just how Safe Catch sources its “low mercury” tuna. She notes that Safe Catch has partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program on sustainable standards and that the company examines the fish to make sure they’re “within the normal size for the particular type of tuna.” But does not appear to ask whether that means they’re within the normal size for juvenile tuna. Likewise, she notes that “Safe Catch only sources from fisheries that have been certified by the U.S. Department of Commerce.” But Safe Catch sources from domestic waters and any company that sources from only domestic waters would be sourcing from stocks certified by the U.S. Department of Commerce. That’s like suggesting a trucking company maintains safety standards by only drives on roads regulated by speed limits.
NOAA defends U.S. Fisheries
This week, NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator, Chris Oliver, sent a letter to the editor of Marine Policy that does not mince words. In response to a new report on IUU fishing, Mr. Oliver asks the editor, “to publish a retraction, and to ensure future articles undergo adequate review to avoid publication of misleading information.”
The article in question, “Estimates of illegal and unreported seafood imports to Japan,” claims a portion of IUU seafood coming to Japan include salmon, crab, and Alaska pollock from the United States. However, these three species in particular are considered among the best managed and most closely monitored in the world. (Not to mention, they’re healthy).
A flawed methodology
Mr. Oliver calls the allegations absent of any transparency regarding the data sources and methodology used by the authors to come up with these claims. The letter goes into more detail about data and methodology concerns and then provides ample information about the robust management of U.S. Alaska pollock, salmon, and crab fisheries.
A new era of NOAA Fisheries communications
It’s important NOAA communicates about its successes and defends itself when it sees clear flaws in a paper like the one published in Marine Policy. This letter to the editor appears to signal a new era of communications for NOAA Fisheries (NMFS) and an encouraging one. Letters like Mr. Oliver’s can result in scientists and journalists doing the extra work to ensure they’re reporting accurately about U.S. fisheries, before publishing.
NOAA stands by U.S. fisheries management
Mr. Oliver finishes by saying,
“In conclusion, NMFS confidently stands by its management, monitoring, and control of U.S. fisheries along America’s coasts and throughout its exclusive economic zone. It is prouder still of U.S. fishers, both commercial and recreational, who are committed to the continued sustainability of our fisheries and who support and observe the regulations intended to sustain and protect our marine resources.”
We are eager to see Marine Policy’s response to NOAA’s strong and very public outreach.
New Study Finds Fat Vital for Health
New Study Tracks Diets of Thousands across 18 Countries
There’s a large new study making waves about the relationship between dietary fats, carbs, and health. The research found that higher fat intake was associated with lower risk of death. Inversely, higher carbohydrate intake was associated with a higher risk of death.
Hyperbolic headlines about the new research are suggesting that a “low-fat diet could kill you” accompanied by images of double cheeseburgers, pizza, and buckets of butter.
The Real Take-Away
It’s extremely doubtful that any Registered Dietitian on planet Earth will see this study and begin urging clients to massively increase their intake of bacon and ice cream.
The real take-away from the study is confirmation that fat does have an important role in the diet. But it’s not just the amount that matters, to confer real and lasting benefits the type of fat is important too.
For a long time, scientists have known fish and shellfish are the best dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA, in the American diet. These healthy polyunsaturated fats are necessary for myriad functions, such as baby brain and eye development during pregnancy. Even better, consuming these healthy fats are among so many other benefits of eating fish.
Markets Insider digs deeper than other outlets and includes reporting on other studies about fats and health as well.
They quote a Harvard nutrition professor who authored a 2016 study as saying:
- “Not all fats are created equal.”
- “We should eat more good ones from fish and avocados, instead of animal fats.”
Similarly, News.com.au provides tips for getting the recommended amount of fat in the diet:
- “The best evidence available suggests that a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, in addition to fat coming from nuts and seeds, oily fish and avocado will give us a daily intake of 30-35 per cent of predominantly good fats.”
The Benefits of Eating Fish
One of the easiest ways to ensure Americans get sufficient (healthy) fat in their diet is by eating more fish. Currently, only 10% of Americans meet the USDA recommendation to eat fish 2-3 times per week.
Science has already shown that low seafood consumption is the second-largest dietary contributor to preventable deaths in the U.S., taking 84,000 lives each year. (For perspective, low intake of fruits and vegetables takes 58,000 lives each year.) There’s no doubt the healthy polyunsaturated fats found in fish play a role here.
If you come across this study in the press, don’t take the easy road and mentally add another frozen pizza to your grocery list. Instead, consider the continuous body of independent science that shows certain fats are vital to your health, and add more of those, including fish, olive oil, and avocados, to your list. It’s encouraging to see the benefits of eating fish continue to be showcased in the latest research.
Eating more seafood has major impact on health, new study
Encouraging new study
Eating more seafood, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, is one of the best things Americans can do for their health, according to a new study.
Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found, “People who improve the quality of their diets over time, eating more whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and fish and less red and processed meats and sugary beverages, may significantly reduce their risk of premature death.”
No need for restrictive diets or complete overhauls
The study highlights that small changes – not just complete diet overhauls – can have a major impact on health. Eating more seafood in particular is simple, affordable, and delicious. For example, adding canned tuna to a casserole dish, shrimp to a salad, or using baked salmon in a rice dish in place of baked chicken are a few ways to easily incorporate more seafood into a meal plan.
The study highlights omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, as one of the food groups “that contributed the most to an improvement in diet quality.”
The science is clear
Study after study continues to show that eating more seafood is a not just a good idea for your health, it’s imperative. In this latest study from Harvard, improving diet quality over time – by eating more of certain foods such as fish – is linked to reduced risk of premature death. Plus, we already know it’s vital to eat fish during pregnancy for optimal baby brain and eye development. No better time to start eating more seafood than the present. Visit DishOnFish for recipes and tips on how to do so.